So, Murray, why exactly do you think studying Classics would be relevant to working in an advertising agency?
I knew this question was coming. We'd done the small talk, then I'd taken the Head of Planning through the interview assignments that I'd been set, and now we'd reached the elephant in the room, so to speak.
I took a sip of water.
Well, I've just spent several years understanding what made a Roman tick over two thousand years ago, so I'm confident I can get to grips with a household shopper in 20th century.
• NCEA changes: Teachers overwhelmingly reject 'extremely dramatic' proposal
• Ministry of Education is proposing some significant changes to NCEA level one
• NCEA overhaul: More emphasis on exams, literacy and numeracy skills
I was offered the role at Publicis in London and so began my career in advertising 20 years ago. It was a wobbly start as I left the world of the whiteboard and the textbook in Nottingham for the research group, the spreadsheet and the power-point deck of a London agency.
Going from being master of my classroom to the least experienced person in the room, I felt like I had to relearn everything on the job. In my early weeks at the agency I fielded repeated queries from colleagues and bosses as to why I had bothered to study Classics. Reactions ranged from the unequivocally damning - 'I hated Latin. Totally pointless' - to the more patronizing - 'I get it's useful for reading road-signs when you go on holiday in France or Italy' or 'Great, you can join our pub quiz team so we've got mythology and legends nailed.'
Years later I still stand by the answer I gave the Head of Planning in my interview. Perhaps unwittingly at the time, I had identified precisely the value of studying Classics and the humanities: that central to any kind of effective communication or branding is the ability to decode human values, behaviour and thinking. And that despite the rise and fall of civilisations, empires, religions and technologies, these defining qualities of our humanity don't change much, if at all.
I certainly attribute this appreciation of unchanging man and woman to my exposure to Roman and Greek culture through the gateways of Latin and Ancient Greek. And it furnished me with key skills.
I learned a strong technical command of the written and spoken word. I became familiar with the nuts and bolts of syntax, grammar, etymology and literary styles and genres in a way that was no longer taught in English classes back in the UK in the 1990s. This proved very helpful in my study of Spanish and French.
History has always been an enthusiasm of mine. Through Latin and Greek, my understanding of history began much earlier than that taught in modern history classes. Yes, Napoleon was interesting, but he was a bit derivative when you considered the legacies of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and the Emperors of Rome.
The Classics curriculum stands apart from others in another way too. It is an interdisciplinary pursuit and this makes it more akin to the discipline of cultural anthropology. It defies intellectual compartmentalization. History, language, art and archaeology, philosophy and ethics and linguistics all intertwine to provide a truly holistic picture of the world so many years ago. A world that continues to inform society today and tomorrow, whether we like it or not.
Incidentally, I found that my first job as a high school Latin teacher developed yet more skills that proved invaluable to carving my career path in advertising. I practised holding the attention of an audience, simplifying the complex for young minds, being persuasive through rhetoric, and gained confidence at public speaking and presenting. All again proved extremely useful to my progress in a creative industry.
To prepare them for a changing workplace that's increasingly automated, leading educationalists tell us that it's critical for young students at primary and secondary schools to balance the acquisition of specialist skills with a broader array of skills. Good judgement, resilience, creative and critical thinking, empathy, and the ability to collaborate with others are all determinants of both professional and personal success over the longer term. None of which is likely to be found solely in a spreadsheet or a P&L ledger, especially as clerical and accounting tasks are increasingly replaced by machine learning.
At the end of last year Robert Schiller, a prominent Nobel prize-winning economist, published his book 'Narrative Economics' in which he urges his discipline to harness the power of storytelling. For all their technical proficiency and skill, they simply aren't persuasive enough to influence policy or engage the public.
"Traditional economic approaches fail to examine the role of public beliefs in major economic events — that is, narrative,' Shiller wrote. "Economists can best advance their science by developing and incorporating into it the art of narrative economics."
With practice and effort, I have learned to read the scoreboards of business: the P&L, the balance sheet and the forecasting ledger. These are the essential tools and frameworks that we use to measure progress and effect. But they are lag indicators of our ability to lead and run businesses, and that is all about people motivating people to bring their intellect and creativity to the workplace. Harnessing the power of story and framing change in a human narrative is a critical skill for those leading businesses in an age of disruption.
The Classics and the wider humanities have created career value for me over the long haul. So I have grave reservations about weakening access to them at NCEA Level 1 by dropping Latin and Art History altogether and subsuming Classics into History (where no history teacher is likely to ever teach it). It strikes me as falling prey to a dangerously narrow, short-term and utilitarian view of education in which vocational qualifications are prized above all else. Access to these unique and deeply human subjects will end within a matter of years.
The Classics remain a kind of life companion to me. Literature, language, art, philosophy and history continue to teach me so much about the power of our human story; that no matter how much changes, so little about us does. It also motivates me to respect and explore the cultures of New Zealand's own Māori and Pacific traditions, taonga that is unique to us.
If we lose this capacity for understanding and exploring diverse stories and what has come before us, then we will only stunt our growth as humans. As Cicero the Roman statesman and orator put it: 'To know nothing of what came before you is to remain forever a child'.
- Murray Streets is the boss at BC&F Dentsu